Can You See the Real Me? “Quadrophenia” Revisited

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The Who recently released an expanded deluxe CD of Quadrophenia.

The British Invasion of the 1960s produced countless bands whose messages still influence us today. While these bands each have left their mark in different ways, The Who have surpassed the others in ingraining their music and lyrics into the public consciousness. The music of The Beatles will always be regarded as the pinnacle of pop rock genius; the Rolling Stones will forever be equated with raw power and lust; but perhaps no band has understood your dreams, anxieties, hopes and insecurities as well as Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon.

The 1962 merging of two local London bands—The Confederates (a Dixieland revival band featuring Townshend and Entwistle) and The Detours (an R&B group headed by Daltrey)—shook up the British Invasion with the smash of its first guitar. Separating themselves from the rest of the musical herd, the newly fused band, The Who, plus their dynamic new drummer, Keith Moon, began their charge atop the billboard charts with a concept/genre they developed themselves, Maximum R&B.

Even with their 1965 UK successes “Substitute” and “My Generation,” an underlying theme of teenage loneliness and social insecurity was apparent in the catchy choruses and riffs. The Who will forever be synonymous with their angst-filled lyrics “Hope I die before I get old” from the song “My Generation.” Townshend, deeply connected to the complex lives of teenagers, understood their quieter struggles:

You think we look pretty good together
You think my shoes are made of leather
But I’m a substitute for another guy
I look pretty tall but my heels are high
The simple things you see are all complicated
I look pretty young, but I’m just back-dated, yeah

Right from the start of “Substitute,” the song’s subject questions the validity of his current relationship. He seems removed and uncomfortable to be himself around this new girl, even down to the fact that his shoes might not be made of real leather. Worrying about his appearance, his height and his appeal may seem humorous and delightful within the four-minute song, but part of “Substitute’s” wide appeal is how universal its themes are.

“Substitute” and “My Generation” were appreciated moments along with other great early The Who songs “I Can’t Explain” and “Anyway, Anywhere, Anyhow.” But, perhaps, no album is more of a beacon of hope within the perils of being a teenager than 1973’s Quadrophenia. Pete Townshend’s brainchild allows the listener to relate to the music on a deeply personal level. The Who’s lesser-known rock opera (always overshadowed by the one about that deaf, dumb and blind kid) follows the struggles of Jimmy, a London teenager who is consumed by the problems that every awkward adolescent faces.

Growing up in the mid-60s, in the midst of the London youth subculture wars of the “Mods” versus the “Rockers” (defined by their clashing clothing styles, musical choices and modes of transportation), Jimmy must examine his personality, mental health and the drug-filled haze his life has become.

In his May 29, 2009 article for The Guardian, James Wood points out how important the Mods subculture was within Quadrophenia: “[T]he mods were pioneers…and had already declared an absolute break with their parents’ values. In place of thrift and conformity and rectitude—the values that had helped win the war—they put decadence, rock music and partying.”

Obsessions with clothing, popularity and sexual acceptance plague Jimmy as he builds friendships and destroys ideals. Within one of the most poignant tracks, “Cut My Hair,” Jimmy rationalizes his adolescent vanity:

Why should I care
If I have to cut my hair?
I’ve got to move with the fashions
Or be outcast.
I know I should fight
But my old man he’s really alright,
And I’m still living at home
Even though it won’t last.
Zoot suit, white jacket with side vents
Five inches long.
I’m out on the street again
And I’m leaping along.
I’m dressed right for a beach fight,
But I just can’t explain
Why that uncertain feeling is still
Here in my brain.

“I’ve got to move with the fashions / Or be outcast” embodies the internal crisis each teenager has before the first day of school, or as he takes that one last look in the mirror before going out for the night — the uncertainty of the uncontrollable worry that he will get left behind. Throughout certain tracks, brand names, like Levi’s, and specifics about GS scooters weave perfectly in and out of lyrics to convey the style anxieties of being a Mod in the mid-60s.

Beyond the exact wording of songs like “Is It in My Head?” or “The Dirty Jobs,” which beautifully express the internal angst and frustration that comes with the difficult task of fighting for your own identity independent of your parents (“Cut My Hair” and “The Punk and the Godfather”) or your personal clique (“5:15” and “Sea and Sand”), the structure of the music, mastered by Townshend, mimics the internal stream of consciousness of a young person working through his social dilemmas.

The echoing of extremely personal questions, such as “Is it me for a moment?” “Can you see the real me?” and “Why should I care?,” reach out to the listener who, at one point or another, has experienced these emotions. While the major plot points and details of Quadrophenia’s narrative are quintessentially English, including the serious 1964 “Easter Bank Holiday” clashes between the Mods and Rockers, the themes and emotions surrounding the four personalities of protagonist Jimmy are nothing short of universal.

Rolling Stone’s original review of the 1973 album describes the importance and feeling of the work without getting muddled in the trans-Atlantic differences:

“To the American mind, Quadrophenia might thus seem as strange as portions of American Graffiti could appear to English experience, but it’s to be assured that the appeal of semi-nostalgic shared memories must perforce work as well for one as the other.”

This concept of semi-nostalgia, as presented by Lenny Kaye (published December 20, 1973), is important in understanding how Townshend presents adolescence and subculture clashes, which included vandalism and violence. Jimmy is conflicted inside about how to handle this lifestyle and, while it is presented as exciting to our “hero,” the listener can feel the anxiety of following the “face” of your youth gang.

Quadrophenia is the Who at their most symmetrical, their most cinematic, ultimately their most maddening. Captained by Pete Townshend, they have put together a beautifully performed and magnificently recorded essay of a British youth mentality in which they played no little part, lushly endowed with black and white visuals and a heavy sensibility of the wet-suffused air of 1965.” (Lenny Kaye, Rolling Stone, 1973)

The motif of water, a cleansing but harmful, always powerful force, is threaded throughout the album, as well as the 1979 film starring Phil Daniels (and a very young Sting) bearing the same name. The use of synthesizers to evoke water and drowning provide a perfect base for the sound of the entire rock opera. This repetition of foreign sounds and certain stanzas mirrors the confusing, frustrating and exciting formative years of adulthood.

Jimmy’s angst is made real through the beautiful lyrics about vanity, disarming heartbreak, longing and confusion. In an April 2009 interview with The Times,Townshend himself understood the impact of the double album: “The music is the best music that I’ve ever written, I think, and it’s the best album that I will ever write.” Enough said.

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